the anglo-saxon rune poem: a new translation

the anglo-saxon rune poem: a new translation.

ma dear ones, turn to page whatever, depending on which textbook you are using and run your flipper, talon, fin, claw or foot down until you reach the anglo saxon rune poem. or better still, open these in another tab:

anglo-saxon version:

modern english translation:

the following sample shows the first verse of the anglo-saxon rune poem interlinear with a typical, fairly free translation.

feoh byþ frofur fira gehwylcum;

wealth is a comfort to all men;

sceal ðeah manna gehwylc miclun hyt dælan

yet every man must share it freely,

gif he wile for drihtne domes hleotan

if he wishes for honour in the sight of the lord.

do deeply interrogate the propaganda here, for there’s a savage spin on it that has wrenched it clear off its hermeneutica, which has gone to hell in a handbasket. the unjustifiable assumption is that the language is primarily ‘germanic’ influenced by ‘celtic’ and church latin. ‘feoh’ is assumed to be related to the english word ‘fee’, which once just meant money (in some old ballads for example). – note that this is strictly corpus etymology, which incorporates a vast amount of guesswork firstly in the translations of texts, which are questionable to say the least, and then in the deeply flawed 19th century comparative philology that the etymologies are drawn from. i believe it is quite wrong, so have no qualms in reinterpreting the evidence using 21st century techniques, some of which i am having to develop because, to my utter amazement, no one else seems to be intending to.

but spelling used to be phonetic, and while ‘fe’ might recall ‘fee’, what of the o and h.  this spelling would have been based on a careful analysis of real pronunciation of speech, and would have represented every sound produced by the utterer and no sound that wasn’t, at least somewhere in the history of this spelling – except in rare events which i need not detail here.  so feoh would have spelt a two syllable word ‘fe-oh’, with the h representing an audible breathing at the least. more like modern english ‘fair’, pronounced with what i as an australian would hear as a posh pommy accent. so i translate it as fair – and after all there would still be a connection since fairs were places where money changed hands.

but frofur?  they’ve had to guess. the word appears elsewhere in the corpus. someone’s guess, if not for this text then for some earlier text, has gone into the lexicons as official knowledge of the language, forever after to shape or distort all subsequent translation attempts. and in my opinion they’ve guessed wrong.

if you have false teeth (or if you haven’t, just imagine it) take them out for a moment and letting your lips relax completely, try saying ‘proper’. ‘is that the proper goose or just the propaganda?’ ‘is the proper propper propping up the proper properties?’ ‘poppa’s purple popcorn parlour proposes the proper propaganda’.

now look again at frofur.

now read on.

that drihtne means honour is also a guess, pure and simple.  so are domes = lord, and hleotan = praise.  they are guesses without foundation, based on an slight chance of a latin origin for which there is no evidence.

worse still, ‘gehwylc’ which occurs also with a case-ending as ‘gehwylcum’ is translated as ‘comfort’ in one place and ‘freely’ in another, with total disregard for grammar, and both ‘fira’ and ‘manna’ are translated as ‘man’.

this is simply not an academically sound translation, but we seem to be stuck with it. every student knows that his/her career depends on agreeing with the existing scholarship and that it is exceedingly difficult for any alternative theory to get a hearing among the professionals. unbelievable as it may seem, most currently existing scholarship, conceited in its wisdom, is committed to the grammatical logic it has derived by guesswork and which it then tautologically invokes to make further translations.

it’s often true that any historian with a knowledge of a couple of germanic languages (preferably dutch and danish), a couple of celtic ones, including irish, good english and some french, an ear attuned to dialect difference and a knowledge of how spelling sometimes reflects real speech and sometimes doesn’t and a feeling for when it’s likely to and when it isn’t can enable you to derive reasonable sense from the anglo-saxon texts using common sense alone, while the traditional scholars’ attempts based on unrealistically formalised grammar and lexicography based on such guesses as the above and worse are often unconvincing and sometimes down-right nonsensical.

whether we err through excessive simplicity, or through over-sophistication, naively or ‘conceited in our wisdom’, i argue that we get more sense out of the simple method than we do out of the overly sophisticated ways.

let’s try simple substitution of the english word nearest in sound to translate this poem. i’ll assume that the spellings are strictly phonetic. if there isn’t one, i’ll leave it unchanged for now. i won’t be right in every case: ge isn’t gay for example, but bear with me – things like that will be picked up and corrected at the end.

feoh byþ frofur fir a ge hwylc-um;

fair  be’s  proper for a gay hwylc -um

sceal ðeah manna ge hwylc miclun hyt dælan

sceal there many ge hwylc miclun it dælan 

gif he wile for drihtne domes hleotan

if he will for drihtne domes hleotan.

now i observe that three words, sceal, miclun, and drihtne are very close to the irish words, scéal, mic léinn, draíocht, and as i know from wider reading that irish words are as often to be found in old english texts as english ones are in irish texts, i’ll translate them without a qualm as story, students, and druids, since draíocht is from draoi meaning druid, and -ne is an old plural ending. now we get:

feoh byþ frofur fir a ge hwylc-um;

fair be’s proper for a gay hwylc-um

sceal ðeah manna ge hwylc miclun hyt dælan

story there many gay hwylc students it dælan

gif he wile for drihtne domes hleotan

if he will for druids domes hleotan.

now it becomes possible to look at words which are not quite so close to obvious english or irish equivalents: dælan and domes.  these are still recognisable english words if a dialect difference is noted: in some areas the hard t is softened to a d. so substituting we get:

feoh byþ frofur fir a ge hwylc-um;

fair be’s  proper for a gay hwylc-um

sceal ðeah manna ge hwylc miclun hyt dælan

story there many gay hwylc students it telling

gif he wile for drihtne domes hleotan

if he will for druids tomes hleotan.

and as for the rest, hwyl- can be while and mean ‘while away time’ or ‘a while’ and the –c, which if futharc is fathers is a plural ending (see here), and hleotan can carry both senses, letters and loud, and mean ‘read aloud’.

 feoh byþ frofur fir a ge hwylc-um;

fair be’s proper for a gay times -um

sceal ðeah manna ge hwylc miclun hyt dælan

story there many gay times students it telling

gif he wile for drihtne domes hleotan

if he will for druids tomes read aloud.

now we can interrogate the grammar: obviously ge is a prefix, not the english gay as first seemed possible.  although it’s spelt like the germanic ge- it’s used like the irish go, since the –um ending of gehwylcum signifies a plural noun in the dative or sometimes genetive case which is implied by the preposition fir=for.  so it can be left untranslated, and so can the –um (although it seems to have once been a separate word meaning ‘of)’  the a is no longer a singular indefinite article since the following noun is a plural, so it must either be a’=all, or part of the preceding word – i.e., fira = for (see sp para). my guess is the latter. for, as in dutch voor, looks like before, or in front of, especially since fira means for. byþ can be ‘be’s’, meaning is. and we can supply an indefinite article before the singular noun, story. finally, since miclun is plural (irish mac léinn (s) mic léinn (pl)) he must be they (and there’s nothing so variable from dialect to dialect as the pronouns, so it’s anybody’s guess, and this is mine!).  so it now looks like this:

feoh byþ frofur fira gehwylcum;

fair is proper for time-passings

sceal ðeah manna gehwylc miclun hyt dælan

a story there many times students it telling

gif he wile for drihtne domes hleotan

if they will before druids tomes read aloud.

let’s now consider the word-order.  the first line is idiomatic enough.  in the second, the word order is reminiscent of cornish word order. where the most interesting word in the sentence comes first: story, and it’s pronoun hyt, reminiscent of the dutch ‘het’ = ‘the’ refers back to it.  it’s actually two sentences, one without a verb, with the verb to be understood: “a story there many times; students telling it, if they want to read tomes aloud before druids.

okay, there is more work to do on this, but in defence of my technique, i might say that the use of rules for translation derived from texts written in one dialect or language to translate a text in a quite different dialect or even language, such as is currently in vogue, is utterly unsound. the reason that this text is not translated literally into perfect english via the known rules of anglo saxon grammar and vocabulary is that it doesn’t obey them. the languages of the time are very imperfectly understood and the chronology is based on guesses as dubious as those that supply the lexicography, and all bound to the superstition that time began only a few thousand years bc.

when does this date from if the current dates are not reliable? where would we start to enquire? the land was evidently a land of schools and colleges within which learning from childhood to adulthood were prized. druids were still educators.  from wide reading about pre-gregorian times, a diverse yet structured education system is evident, one which would produce language change far more than modern schools do. it brought many children of different backgrounds together to be educated in isolation from the rest of the world, within a linguistic environment both artificial and idiosyncratic. our rune-reciting children fit in well here. despite the fact that only a tiny minority are educated in any given population, one speaker can profoundly affect the speech of a whole generation.  a very elite school which has on its teaching staff a single teacher with a speech defect, or who has a foreign accent, or no teeth, or even an affectation, who takes the scholars for classes given in the school’s preferred language, while other teachers teach in, say, latin, or in classes where language is not so vital such as equestrianism, dancing and fencing, may introduce a particular trait into the language such that the next generation of teachers at that school learn it, the nobility learns it, their retinues affect it, and it begins to be a mark of superiority, such that the educated who use it begin to correct the ‘uneducated’ who still use the correct forms.

like I said, try saying “the proper propaganda is propagated properly” with two fingers in your mouth.  or if you have false teeth, take them out and letting your lips flop, try it then.  or if you have your own teeth, try sucking in your lips in imitation of someone who has none and try saying it then.  then, if you’re not hearing yourself say frofur, i’ll go he.

to test this translation method, let’s look at another verse.  some comments first. from other texts as well as this i take ur to mean fur or hair.  7 is at least sometimes the spanish y for ‘and’.  i take hyrn to be a form of hyr, meaning their, adding an n when preceding a vowel, (’ead) (as in the ‘my father’ but ‘mine uncle’ of not so long ago. )

ur byþ mod 7 ofer  hyrn ed

hair be’s mode and over their head

felafrecne deor feohteth mid hornum

fallow-freck(le)-s deer faredeth (fares+eth -note lisping)  with  horns

maere mor stapa 7 is modig wuht.

mare great-topcoat the one is modish white.

in the last line, mor=irish m/or, meaning great, english more, cornish meur, and stapa has the germanic s, remant of das, attached to tapa, which is the same as top(per), meaning top-coat. it is related to tapestry, and the french tapis, reflecting the weightiness and stiffness of the heavy furred animal skins which were worn as a top garment.

fur is fashionable, and over the head.

freckled fallow deer (that) runs(fares) with horns.

horse(-skin) great-coat that is fashionable white.

 this verse has been translated as something like

‘aurochs is ferocious with huge horns

a very fierce beast, it fights with its horns,

a well-known moor-stepper, it is a courageous creature.’

but the anglo-saxons wouldn’t have known about the aurochs.

I’ll leave you with these first two verses for now, and get back to you with the rest asap.